Hemenway’s new book, Private Guns, Public Health (University of Michigan Press), which takes an original approach to an old problem by applying a scientific perspective to firearms. Hemenway, who directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the School of Public Health (www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc), summarizes and interprets findings from hundreds of surveys and from epidemiological and field studies to deliver on the book’s subtitle: A Dramatic New Plan for Ending America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence.
"The gun-control debate often makes it look like there are only two options: either take away people’s guns, or not," he says. "That’s not it at all. This is more like a harm-reduction strategy. Recognize that there are a lot of guns out there, and that reasonable gun policies can minimize the harm that comes from them."
In his book, he points out the fascinating idea that the United States is not a particularly violent society. Often comparisons are misleading, for example, comparing America to Colombia, Mexico, and Estonia makes America appear a truly peaceable kingdom. A more relevant comparison is against other high-income, industrialized nations. The percentage of the U.S. population victimized in 2000 by crimes like assault, car theft, burglary, robbery, and sexual incidents is about average for 17 industrialized countries, and lower on many indices than Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.
"The only thing that jumps out is lethal violence," Hemenway says. Violence is not "as American as cherry pie," but American violence does tend to end in death. The reason, plain and simple, is guns. We own more guns per capita than any other high-income country—maybe even more than one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. A 1994 survey numbered the U.S. gun supply at more than 200 million in a population then numbered at 262 million, and currently about 35 percent of American households have guns.
He agrees with the pro-gun community in saying that guns don’t induce people to commit crimes. "What guns do is make crimes lethal," says Hemenway. They also make suicide attempts lethal: about 60 percent of suicides in America involve guns. "If you try to kill yourself with drugs, there’s a 2 to 3 percent chance of dying," he explains. "With guns, the chance is 90 percent."
To me that's an impressive comparison, successful suicides are 3% with drugs, 90% with a gun. Hemenway goes on to shed some light on the fallacy of comparing guns with cars, something I've attempted myself. Naturally, the PhD from Harvard does a better job of it.
Gun deaths fall into three categories: homicides, suicides, and accidental killings. In 2001, about 30,000 people died from gunfire in the United States. Set this against the 43,000 annual deaths from motor-vehicle accidents to recognize what startling carnage comes out of a barrel. The comparison is especially telling because cars "are a way of life," as Hemenway explains. "People use cars all day, every day—and ‘motor vehicles’ include trucks. How many of us use guns?"
Another very fascinating angle Hemenway comes up with is that all the attention on so-called assault weapons may very well serve the purposes of the pro-gun folks.
Though assault weapons have attracted lots of publicity from Hollywood and Washington, and NRA stands for National Rifle Association, these facts mask the reality of the gun problem, which centers on pistols. "Handguns are the crime guns," Hemenway says. "They are the ones you can conceal, the guns you take to go rob somebody. You don’t mug people at rifle-point."
And America is awash in handguns. Canada, for example, has almost as many guns per capita as the United States, but Americans own far more pistols. "Where do Canadian criminals, and Mexican criminals, get their handguns?" asks Hemenway. "From the United States." Gang members in Boston and New York get their handguns from other states with permissive gun laws; the firearms flow freely across state borders. Interstate 95, which runs from Florida to New England, even has a nickname among gun-runners: "the Iron Pipeline."
What's your opinion? Do you think the excessive attention paid to military style assault rifles has distracted us from the real problem? Does that make sense? What do you think Prof. Hemenway would suggest as a solution? Do you believe him when he says he's interested in reasonable gun policies which will minimize the harm that comes from guns? Or do you think all anti-gun talk leads to banning?
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